Curiosity Rover Takes a Bite Out of Mars Mountain

On Wednesday, September 24 NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover successfully pulled the first sample of Mount Sharp (Aeolis Mons), a speculated Mars landing site. This massive structure rises about 18,000 ft. above the crater floor, about the same height as Cerro Pajonal of the Andes. The rover drilled 6.7cm into what is called the mountain’s “basal-layer” and retrieved a powdered-rock sample that is stored in a compartment on the rover’s arm. Ashwin Vasavada, a scientist for the Curiosity Deputy Project and member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said the target is at the “lowest part of the base layer of the mountain, and from here we plan to examine the higher, younger layers exposed in nearby hills.” Vasavada says the sample is important because it allows scientists to understand the mountain’s environment and the factors that led to its growth. Scientists will analyze the rock’s chemical ingredients and shape to determine the mountain’s composition which thus far seems to be a mound of eroded sedimentary layers.

The Curiosity rover has traveled millions of kilometers through space to reach Mars and has been collecting data over a distance of 5 miles in the past 15 months. Curiosity launched in November 2011 and first reached the Gale Crater area of Mars in August 2012. Its first mission was studying Yellowknife Bay, an area closer to the landing site, but on the opposite side. The data collected from Yellowknife showed evidence of a three billion-year-old lakebed that could have supplied an energy gradient and ingredients suitable for microbes. The project manager of JPL, Jennifer Trosper said, “We’re putting on the brakes to study this amazing mountain.” Once the sample has been deemed safe it can be moved from the sample handling compartment onto the rover’s sample analysis and CheMin instruments for more detailed examination.

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